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Sticky Fingers, Hidden Hams: A Shoplifting History

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 7, 2011

It was the tiniest of crimes, but it wasn’t innocent. I knew exactly what I was doing when I stuffed two Bonne Bell Lipsmacker glosses (Dr. Pepper and Orange Soda flavors, to be exact) into my jean pockets at our local Osco Drug. At 11 years old, I had allowance and the money to buy them, but there was something electric about breezing out of the store, straight past the security sensors. It sent a charge through me. Of course, it also sent waves of guilt and nausea, and, short of a pack of gum or two over the years, that was the last time I shoplifted. I still think about doing it — in a moment when, for example, I try on a dress with its tag missing — but I just don’t have the nerve.

According to Rachel Shteir’s The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, 27 million Americans do have the nerve, and they follow through with this compulsion on a regular basis. Nearly 10 percent of all U.S citizens have tried shoplifting — that’s more than the percentage who have tried cocaine or who are considered clinically depressed. And that figure reflects only those who have admitted to the behavior. How many more pocketed lip gloss in their teens and never came clean?

Shoplifting falls into the category of activities we all think about but never discuss, making it perfect fodder for a serious literary inquiry. It’s not easy to casually mull your desire to stuff a country ham under your shirt, but it’s an impulse worth understanding. Enter The Steal, a book that attempts to synthesize all the information we have about petty theft, from shoplifting laws in Victorian England to the high-profile crimes of the present day. Since the start of the Great Recession, retail losses due to shoplifting have risen 8.8 percent. The “crime tax,” or the $500 every American family loses to theft-related price inflation, is higher in the United States than any other country. The shoplifting of a single $5 heirloom tomato from Whole Foods requires sales of $166 worth of other groceries in order for the store to absorb the loss, a reality that affects prices for all shoppers. As Shteir argues, shoplifting isn’t a cute crime that kids and old ladies commit; it’s a national epidemic and one that deserves more serious attention.

Shteir admits that she only became interested in the subject after following the Winona Ryder trial, and she devotes a long chapter of the book to Ryder’s case. (Refresher for those not involved in the “Free Winona” movement: in 2001, the actress stole thousands of dollars worth of clothing from a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and, two years later, was ordered to do 480 hours of community service as punishment). Shteir’s take on celebrity thieves — she also recounts the mind-boggling Claude Allen case, a story Shteir broke on Slate in 2006 — is compelling, but not as interesting as her exploration of the reasons why everyday folks steal, and why they are treated so much more harshly for it than the rich and famous. Because of the three-strikes law, shoplifters in California can be put away for life — unless they happen to be Lindsay Lohan.

With such overtly serious consequences at stake, why can’t people stop stealing? The question drives Shteir’s most intriguing chapters, those delving into the psychoses of theft, from Freudian theories that link kleptomania and sexual repression to current support groups that address issues of compulsion and shame. Shoplifting, Shteir finds, has no direct correlation to need; it’s not the Jean Valjeans of the world who are stealing the most bread. It has more to do with desire and control than hunger, and all that that word implies. People with an income of $70,000 or more are 30 percent more likely to shoplift than those earning less.

Shteir’s study often reads like an academic exercise (see the numbing chapter on the history of security tags), but her subject is tantalizing enough that you’ll not to want to put the book down — especially if you’re inclined to lift it. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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